04/27/2012 07:12 EDT | Updated 06/26/2012 05:12 EDT

It's Not Just About Being a "Pitbull With Lipstick"


I don't have to tell anyone that women have come up against bull-headed attitudes in private and public life.

Lucky for me I come from Steeltown, where girls learn how to swing a sledgehammer at glass ceilings, but attitudes are changing. More female candidates are running and winning across the province and the country. It was good to see Alison Redford elected Premier of Alberta earlier this week (although I was cheering for my NDP counterpart Brian Mason). That said, it's good to see women leading parties, and governments from coast-to-coast. I'm getting good at the former and I plan to work on the latter real soon.

Over the last three years as leader of the Ontario NDP, I've learned a lot about building consensus. I've learned that toughness is an essential quality for any leader, but so is compassion, empathy and flexibility.

I've learned that being a woman in politics carries all the challenges of leadership and then some. I've learned not to dwell on double standards even when I'm asked about my outfits or my hair. It means walking a fine line, and speaking out even when some would prefer I stay in my place.

I've learned not to be intimidated by bullies in three-piece suits.

The floor of the legislature isn't the best place for a shrinking violet, neither is a media scrum. I've never been a wallflower but chest-thumping and brow-beating isn't my style and doesn't inspire confidence.

Courage isn't just charging headlong into a fight. Rather, it's taking your responsibilities seriously. It's listening to people, and hearing what they're saying. It's being yourself, even when our society is used to leaders who are louder, more belligerent, or frankly, male.

During the campaign I was clear: I didn't want to spend four weeks scrapping for political points. Instead, I wanted to spend four years tackling the challenges facing people. That's because I believe the challenges facing the everyday people who make Ontario work are the challenges that hold Ontario back.

There are challenges. Times are tough again in Ontario. And they're getting tougher.

Ontario's households are dealing with unprecedented levels of debt. Wages are falling. And unemployment remains stubbornly high.

Economists tell us that the crisis in Ontario's economy isn't in the corporate sector. Thanks to years of corporate tax reductions, Ontario's corporations have unprecedented levels of cash in reserve.

Instead, it's households that are falling behind.

Although some jobs have returned since the recession the recovery has been very, very slow. Our unemployment rate is above the national average. At the same time, the average paycheque in this province is actually shrinking -- one of the only provinces where this is happening.

A few weeks ago, the people of Ontario were presented with a budget that left families falling further behind. And I, along with the incredible group of women and men in my caucus had a choice to make.

I knew we had to be responsible.

It seemed a basic courtesy to ask people for their opinion since the budget will have far-reaching consequences for each and every person in this province.

Critics accused me of stalling for time, but the thousands of people who wrote, emailed, called, and even stopped me at the grocery store were desperate to be heard. They were glad someone finally took the time to do it.

When I spoke to the press on budget day -- March 27 -- one journalist scratched his head and said reserving my judgment, taking my time, and asking people what they think seemed like a politician's way of avoiding an issue.

I told him it was a woman's way of confronting a problem.

That got a laugh. But I wasn't completely joking.

It was because of what we heard from everyday Ontarians that we were able to get some real action on the 2012 budget.

We were instrumental in freezing the corporate tax rate to bring badly needed funds into the treasury.

We advocated for fairer taxation because Ontarians agree with the idea that the most fortunate among us can afford to pitch in a little extra for vital services.

In that same spirit of fairness we insisted on a cap on public sector CEO salaries and bonuses.

We got results.

Not everything we asked for.

Not everything that's needed.

But real positive change that will make a difference in people's lives.

Dalton McGuinty talked about a "marriage" yesterday, but I'm a single woman and I'm pretty happy that way. New Democrats feel the same. New Democrats definitely don't need a husband who doesn't listen, doesn't share and generally puts himself first. Unfortunately, we've seen too much of that from the government over the past six months.

My team and I decided not to force people into an election they didn't want. We decided to keep working in the legislature so we could deliver on the real results we worked so hard for.

I care about getting real results for the working mom who needs daycare, the nurse working in an under-resourced ER, or the family that's coping with a lost job.

And I know I can get real results by rolling up our sleeves and working together.

New Democrats have serious concerns about the priorities of the government. And we'll be offering positive alternatives and forcing the discussion when we need to. We'll continue to hold this government to account. We'll continue to bring the priorities of Ontarians to the floor of the legislature.

I believe in bringing fairness back to politics. I believe in putting people first.

New Democrats are leading the way by example.

Things are changing in Canada.

And I'm a big believer in change.

I couldn't have reached my position without the love and support of family and friends people who are never afraid to give me the straight goods.

For me, mentorship starts with honesty.

And if I'm a mentor to anyone I'll offer one piece of advice to all the young women who wonder if they can cut it in their chosen field: Of course you can. It will take hard work but you're every bit as smart as your competition.

This column is taken from a speech to Equal Voice Toronto.